Warrior Cops:The Ominous Growth of Paramilitarism in American Police Departments

Warrior Cops

The Ominous Growth of Paramilitarism in American Police Departments

By Diane Cecilia Weber

[In the Summer/Fall 1999 edition of Issues & Views, we ran a summary of this important study by Diane Cecilia Weber, published by the Cato Institute. Two years after its publication, it is a sad commentary on our times that Weber’s report has not provoked widespread concern. In this paper, she documents the increasing encroachment on individual freedoms, thanks to local law enforcement agencies that are being transformed into military units. Cities and towns around this country are now nurturing the kind of militarized police forces that have always been indispensable to totalitarian regimes, but whose existence is considered antithetical to a free, open society.
Is it practical for the average citizen to confidently believe that he is protected from the arbitrary use of force by policing agencies, due to specific constitutional restraints? Can the Founders’ restraints be depended upon today? “The mindset of the soldier is simply not appropriate for the civilian police officer,” this report reminds us. “Police officers confront not an ‘enemy’ but individuals who are protected by the Bill of Rights. Confusing the police function with the military function can lead to dangerous and unintended consequences–such as unnecessary shootings and killings.” The fact that most citizens still don’t comprehend the significance of a militarized police force is a bad portent for the future of civil liberties.
Following is an excerpted version of Warrior Cops. See below for a link to the complete report.]

One of the most alarming side effects of the federal government’s war on drugs is the militarization of law enforcement in America. There are two aspects to the militarization phenomenon. First, the American tradition of civil-military separation is breaking down as Congress assigns more and more law enforcement responsibilities to the armed forces. Second, state and local police officers are increasingly emulating the war-fighting tactics of soldiers. Most Americans are unaware of the militarization phenomenon simply because it has been creeping along imperceptibly for many years. To get perspective, it will be useful to consider some recent events:
  • The U.S. military played a role in the Waco incident. In preparation for their disastrous 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound, federal law enforcement agents were trained by Army Special Forces at Fort Hood, Texas. And Delta Force commanders would later advise Attorney General Janet Reno to insert gas into the compound to end the 51-day siege. Waco resulted in the largest number of civilian deaths ever arising from a law enforcement operation.
  • Between 1995 and 1997 the Department of Defense gave police departments 1.2 million pieces of military hardware, including 73 grenade launchers and 112 armored personnel carriers. The Los Angeles Police Department has acquired 600 Army surplus M-16s. Even small-town police departments are getting into the act. The seven-officer department in Jasper, Florida, is now equipped with fully automatic M-16s.
  • Since the mid-1990s U.S. Special Forces have been going after drug dealers in foreign countries. According to the U.S. Southern Command, American soldiers occupy three radar sites in Colombia to help monitor drug flights. And Navy SEALs have assisted in drug interdiction in the port city of Cap-Haitien, Haiti.
  • In 1998 Indiana National Guard Engineering Units razed 42 crack houses in and around the city of Gary. The National Guard has also been deployed in Washington, D.C., to drive drug dealers out of certain locations.
What is clear–and disquieting–is that the lines that have traditionally separated the military mission from the police mission are getting badly blurred.
Over the last 20 years Congress has encouraged the U.S. military to supply intelligence, equipment, and training to civilian police. That encouragement has spawned a culture of paramilitarism in American police departments.
By virtue of their training and specialized armament, state and local police officers are adopting the tactics and mindset of their military mentors. The problem is that the actions and values of the police officer are distinctly different from those of the warrior.
The job of a police officer is to keep the peace, but not by just any means. Police officers are expected to apprehend suspected law-breakers while adhering to constitutional procedures. They are expected to use minimum force and to deliver suspects to a court of law.
The soldier, on the other hand, is an instrument of war. In boot camp, recruits are trained to inflict maximum damage on enemy personnel. Confusing the police function with the military function can have dangerous consequences. As Albuquerque police chief Jerry Glavin has noted, “If [cops] have a mind-set that the goal is to take out a citizen, it will happen.”
Paramilitarism threatens civil liberties, constitutional norms, and the well-being of all citizens. Thus, the use of paramilitary tactics in everyday police work should alarm people of goodwill from across the political spectrum.


The use of British troops to enforce unpopular laws in the American colonies helped to convince the colonists that King George III and Parliament were intent on establishing tyranny. The Declaration of Independence specifically refers to those practices, castigating King George for “quartering large Bodies of Armed Troops among us” and for “protecting [soldiers], by mock Trial, from Punishment, for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States.” The colonists complained that the king “has kept among us, in Times of peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our Legislatures. He has affected to render the Military independent of, and superior to, the Civil Power.”
After the Revolutionary War, Americans were determined to protect themselves against the threat of an overbearing military. The Founders inserted several safeguards into the Constitution to ensure that the civilian powers of the new republic would remain distinct from, and superior to, the military.
It is important to emphasize that those provisions were not considered controversial. Indeed, the debate at the time of the founding did not concern the wisdom of limiting the role of the military. The debate was only with respect to whether those constitutional safeguards would prove adequate.
During the Civil War period the principle of civil-military separation broke down. President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, and citizens were arrested and tried before military tribunals. After the Civil War, Congress imposed martial law in the rebel states. And to shield the military’s reconstruction policies from constitutional challenges, Congress barred the Supreme Court from jurisdiction over federal appellate court rulings involving postwar reconstruction controversies.
The Army enforced an array of laws in the South and, not surprisingly, became politically meddlesome. In several states the Army interfered with local elections and state political machinery. Such interference during the presidential election of 1876 provoked a political firestorm.
The Army’s machinations in the South also set the stage for a landmark piece of legislation, the Posse Comitatus Act. The one-sentence law provided, “Whoever, except in cases and under such circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or by Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined no more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”
Federal troops have occasionally played a role in quelling civil disorder–without prior congressional authorization–in spite of the plain terms of the Posse Comitatus Act. The U.S. Army, for example, was used to restore order in industrial disputes in the late 19th and early 20th century. Except for the illegal occupation of the Coeur d’Alene mining region in Idaho in 1899-1901, army troops were used by presidents to accomplish specific and temporary objectives–after which they were immediately withdrawn.
Over the past 20 years there has been a dramatic expansion of the role of the military in law enforcement activity. In 1981 Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Officials Act. That law amended the Posse Comitatus Act insofar as it authorized the military to “assist” civilian police in the enforcement of drug laws. The act encouraged the military to (a) make available equipment, military bases, and research facilities to federal, state, and local police; (b) train and advise civilian police on the use of the equipment; and (c) assist law enforcement personnel in keeping drugs from entering the country. The act also authorized the military to share information acquired during military operations with civilian law enforcement agencies.
As the drug war escalated throughout the 1980s, the military was drawn further and further into the prohibition effort by a series of executive and congressional initiatives:
  • In 1986 President Ronald Reagan issued a National Decision Security Directive designating drugs as an official threat to “national security,” which encouraged a tight-knit relationship between civilian law enforcement and the military.
  • In 1988 Congress directed the National Guard to assist law enforcement agencies in counterdrug operations. Today National Guard units in all 50 states fly across America’s landscape in dark green helicopters, wearing camouflage uniforms and armed with machine guns, in search of marijuana fields.
  • In 1989 President George Bush created six regional joint task forces (JTFs) within the Department of Defense. Those task forces are charged with coordinating the activities of the military and police agencies in the drug war, including joint training of military units and civilian police. JTFs can be called on by civilian law enforcemen agencies in counterdrug cases when police feel the need for military reinforcement.
  • In 1994 the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense signed a memorandum of understanding, which has enabled the military to transfer technology to state and local police departments. Civilian officers now have at their disposal an array of high-tech military items previously reserved for use during wartime.
All of those measures have resulted in the militarization of a wide range of activity in the United States that had been previously considered the domain of civilian law enforcement. As one reporter has observed, “Not since federal troops were deployed to the former Confederate states during Reconstruction has the U.S. military been so intimately involved in civilian law enforcement.”


Not only is the military directly involved in law enforcement; police departments are increasingly emulating the tactics of the armed forces in their everyday activities. This aspect of the militarization phenomenon has gone largely unnoticed.
In one sense, the paramilitarism in today’s police departments is a consequence of the increasing professionalism of police in the 20th century. Professionalism essentially grants a monopoly of specialized knowledge, training, and practice to certain groups in exchange for a commitment to a public service ideal. While that may sound desirable for law enforcement officers, the effects of professionalism have, in many respects, been negative. Over the last century police departments have evolved into increasingly centralized, authoritarian, autonomous, and militarized bureaucracies, which has led to their isolation from the citizenry.
On the positive side, the early police forces were well integrated into their communities, often solving crimes by simply chatting with people on the street corners. On the negative side, the police were suspicious of and often hostile to strangers and immigrants, and, having strong loyalties to the local political machine, they were susceptible to bribery and political influence. Throughout the 19th century police work was considered casual labor, making it difficult for either municipalities or precinct captains to impose any uniform standards on patrolmen. Police did not consider themselves a self-contained body of law officers set apart from the general populace.
Two events signaled the break away of police from their communities and into their modern professional enclave. In 1905 the first truly modern state police force was formed in Pennsylvania. Ostensibly created to control crime in rural areas, the Pennsylvania State Police was used mainly in labor disputes, since the state militias and local police (who were more likely to sympathize with strikers) had been ineffective. That centralized organization, under one commander appointed by the governor, recruited members from across the state so that no more than a handful of officers had roots in any single community. This new force was considered so militaristic that the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor referred to it as “Cossacks.” Despite the misgivings of many people, Pennsylvania started a trend. Other states began to emulate Pennsylvania’s state police force.
The other significant event was J. Edgar Hoover’s directorship of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. By raising standards of training and recruitment, Hoover rescued federal law enforcement from its former state of corruption and mismanagement. Hoover imbued his agents with a moral zeal to fight crime, and in 1935 he opened the National Police Academy, which has exerted tremendous influence on police training generally. Hoover’s FBI acquired a prestige that made it the model police organization.


There is agreement in police literature that the incident that inspired the SWAT concept occurred in 1966. In August of that year a deranged man climbed to the top of the 32-story clock tower at the University of Texas in Austin. For 90 minutes he randomly shot 46 people, killing 15 of them, until two police officers got to the top of the tower and killed him. The Austin episode was so blatant that it “shattered the last myth of safety Americans enjoyed [and] was the final impetus the chiefs of police needed” to form their own SWAT teams.
Shortly thereafter, the Los Angeles Police Department formed the first SWAT team and, it is said, originated the acronym SWAT to describe its elite force. The Los Angeles SWAT unit acquired national prestige when it was used successfully against the Black Panthers in 1969 and the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1973.
Much like the FBI, the modern SWAT team was born of public fear and the perception by police that crime had reached such proportions, and criminals had become so invincible, that more armament and more training were needed. SWAT team members have come to consider themselves members of an elite unit with specialized skills and more of a military ethos than the normal police structure. Another striking similarity with the FBI is that SWAT units have gained their status and legitimacy in the public eye by their performance in a few sensational events.
The 1980s and 1990s saw marked changes in the number of permanent SWAT teams across the country, in their mission and deployment, and in their tactical armament. According to a 1997 study of SWAT teams conducted by Peter Kraska and Victor Kappeler of Eastern Kentucky University, nearly 90 percent of the police departments surveyed in cities with populations over 50,000 had paramilitary units, as did 70 percent of the departments surveyed in communities with populations under 50,000.
Although the proliferation of those special units was slow in the late 1960s and early 1970s, their numbers took a leap in the mid-1970s, and growth has remained high since the 1980s. In fact, most SWAT teams have been created in the 1980s and 1990s.
Towns like Jasper, Lakeland, and Palm Beach Florida; Lakewood, New Jersey; Chapel Hill North Carolina; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Harwich, Massachusetts, have SWAT teams. The campus police at the University of Central Florida have a SWAT unit, even though the county SWAT team is available. Kraska refers to the proliferation as the “militarization of Mayberry,” and he is rightly alarmed that the special units are becoming a normal and permanent part of law enforcement agencies.
An even more disturbing development reported in the Kraska-Kappeler study is the growing tendency of police departments to use SWAT units in routine policing activity. The Fresno SWAT unit, for example, sends its 40-person team, with full military dress and gear, into the inner city “war zone” to deal with problems of drugs, gangs, and crime. One survey respondent described his department’s use of SWAT teams in the following way:

We’re into saturation patrols in hot spots. We do a lot of our work with the SWAT unit because we have bigger guns. We send out two, two-to-four-men cars, we look for minor violations and do jump-outs, either on people on the street or automobiles. After we jump-out the second car provides periphery cover with an ostentatious display of weaponry. We’re sending a clear message: if the shootings don’t stop, we’ll shoot someone.

A midwestern community with a population of 75,000 sends out patrols dressed in tactical uniform in a military personnel carrier. The armored vehicle, according to the SWAT commander, stops “suspicious vehicles and people. We stop anything that moves. We’ll sometimes even surround suspicious homes and bring out the MP5s (machine gun pistols).”


The institutional cooperation between civilian law enforcement and the military has emerged under the direct political sponsorship of elected leaders in the national legislature and the presidency. In 1981 Congress diluted the Posse Comitatus Act–a law that was designed to keep the military out of civilian affairs–in order to give the military an active role in the war on drugs, and that role has been expanded by subsequent congressional action and by the support of presidents of both political parties. The military-law enforcement connection is now a basic assumption within the federal government, and it receives enthusiastic support in government literature.
For example, in a 1997 National Institute of Justice report on the transfer of military technology to civilian police departments, the Joint Program Steering Group explained the “convergence in the technology needs of the law enforcement and military communities” as due to their “common missions.” In the military’s newest “peacekeeping” role abroad, it is obliged–much as civilian police–to be “highly discreet when applying force,” given the “greater presence of members of the media or other civilians who are observing, if not recording, the situation.”
Because of their close collaboration with the military, SWAT units are taking on the warrior mentality of our military’s special forces. SWAT team organization resembles that of a special combat unit, with a commander, a tactical team leader, a scout, a rear guard or “defenseman,” a marksman (sniper), a spotter, a gasman, and paramedics. Moreover, SWAT teams, like military special forces, are elite units: Their rigorous team training; high-tech armament; and “battle dress uniforms,” consisting of lace-up combat boots, full body armor, Kevlar helmets, and goggles with “ninja” style hoods, reinforce their elitism within law enforcement agencies. One commander–who disapproved of proactive SWAT policing and turned down requests from team members to dress in black battle dress uniforms while on patrol–nevertheless understood its attraction to team members: “I can’t blame them, we’re a very elite unit, they just want to be distinguishable.”
The so-called war on drugs and other martial metaphors are turning high-crime areas into “war zones,” citizens into potential enemies, and police officers into soldiers. Preparing the ground for the 1994 technology transfer agreement between the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice, Attorney General Reno addressed the defense and intelligence community. In her speech, Reno compared the drug war to the Cold War, and the armed and dangerous enemies abroad to those at home.
Departmental SWAT teams have accepted the military as a model for their behavior and outlook, which is distinctly impersonal and elitist; American streets are viewed as the “front” and American citizens as the “enemy.” The sharing of training and technology by the military and law enforcement agencies has produced a shared mindset, and the mindset of the warrior is simply not appropriate for the civilian police officer charged with enforcing the law.
The soldier confronts an enemy in a life-or-death situation. The soldier learns to use lethal force on the enemy, both uniformed and civilian, irrespective of age or gender. The soldier must sometimes follow orders unthinkingly, acts in concert with his comrades, and initiates violence on command. That mentality, with which new recruits are strenuously indoctrinated in boot camp, can be a matter of survival to the soldier and the nation at war.
The civilian law enforcement officer, on the other hand, confronts not an “enemy” but individuals who, like him, are both subject to the nation’s laws and protected by the Bill of Rights. Although the police officer can use force in life-threatening situations, the Constitution and numerous Supreme Court rulings have circumscribed the police officer’s direct use of force, as well as his power of search and seizure. In terms of violence, the police officer’s role is–or should be–purely reactive. When a police officer begins to think like a soldier, tragic consequences–such as the loss of innocent life at Waco–will result.
After some controversial SWAT shootings spawned several wrongful death lawsuits against the police department of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the city hired Professor Sam Walker of the University of Nebraska to study its departmental practices. According to Walker: “The rate of killings by the police was just off the charts. . . . They had an organizational culture that led them to escalate situations upward rather than de-escalating.” The city of Albuquerque subsequently hired a new police chief and dismantled its SWAT unit.
The tiny town of Dinuba, California (population 15,000), created a SWAT unit in the spring of 1997. A few months later an innocent man, Ramon Gallardo, was killed by the SWAT team when it raided his home looking for one of his teenage sons. The SWAT unit rushed into the Gallardo household at 7 a.m. wearing hoods and masks, yelling “search warrant.” Gallardo and his wife were awakened by the ruckus, but before they could determine what was happening, Ramon was shot 15 times.
A police brutality lawsuit was later brought against the city. At trial, the police said they had to shoot in self-defense because Gallardo had grabbed a knife. Gallardo’s wife testified that the knife on the scene did not belong to her husband and alleged that the police had planted it there to legitimize the shooting. The jury awarded the Gallardo family $12.5 million. Because the whopping verdict exceeded the small town’s insurance coverage, the city is now in financial straits. After Gallardo’s killing, the city fathers of Dinuba disbanded the SWAT unit and gave its military equipment to another police department.
Some local jurisdictions may wish to retain SWAT units for the special skills they possess, but the deployment of such units should be limited to extraordinary circumstances–such as a hostage situation. If a SWAT unit is created (or retained), the need for that unit should be assessed annually by locally elected officials. Policymakers must be especially wary of “mission creep” and guard against it. Inactive SWAT teams have a strong incentive to expand their original “emergency” mission into more routine policing activities to justify their existence. In recent years, city officials in Dallas and Seattle have curtailed the activity of their SWAT units, taking them off drug raids and suicide calls. Other cities should follow their lead by curtailing the SWAT mission–or even dismantling the entire unit as was done in Albuquerque and Dinuba.
Congress should recognize that federal policies have contributed to the culture of paramilitarism that currently pervades many local police departments. Federal lawmakers should discourage paramilitarism by restoring the traditional American principle of civil-military separation embodied in the Posse Comitatus Act. The Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Officials Act created a dangerous loophole in the Posse Comitatus Act. That loophole should be closed immediately. Congress should also abolish all military-civilian law enforcement joint task forces and see to it that all military hardware loaned, given, or sold to law enforcement agencies is destroyed or returned. Armored personnel carriers and machine guns, should not be a part of everyday law enforcement in a free society.

Warrior Cops is Cato Briefing Paper No. 50. For further information on other papers and publications, visit Cato’s home page. Diane Cecilia Weber is a Virginia writer on law enforcement and criminal justice.

Copyright © 2007 Issues & Views



About elloborojo

Okay, as the subtitle states, this is a notebook from what I call a New Mexico diaspora (look up diaspora if you are asking). I was a former resident of New Mexico, now living elsewhere, but New Mexico is still my homeland. To get more in touch with your homeland one must be away from it. This is my attempt to understand it. I was a former anti-militarism activist in the Albuquerque area. Still believe that United Snakes militarism is the greatest threat to the world, as do the majority of the worlds population. Uncovered much information about the ties in New Mexico, but never processed it all. This blog is an attempt to do that. Also hope it may come of use to others with similar interests.
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